On Irish Historiography, Revisionism, and the Troubles

August 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last month, at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Irish Studies at my alma-mater, Concordia University, I was witness to an interesting discussion about revisionism in Irish historiography.  The discussion centred around issues of identity in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In particular, the issue of binaries, in that one was either Protestant or Catholic and the twain never met.

I have long had problems with revisionist history (in the historiographical sense, let me be clear), in that it seeks to normalise, which means it plays down the unusual, the anachronisms, and so on.  In some ways, this is a good thing. In the case of Ireland, there is some good which has come out of revisionism, most notably, we are free to focus less on the stereotypical tragic history of a “famished land, who fortune could not save” (to quote the Pogues).  In short, Ireland is free to become (to borrow from revisionism in Québec historiography) “une nation comme les autres.”  Revisionism also leads us to post-structuralism and allows us to get past the binaries in many ways: Catholic v. Protestant, man v. woman, city v. rural, North v. South, Ireland v. England, etc. We can see the greys now, a process begun with the muddying of the playing field by the great revisionists of the 20th century: T.W. Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards, as well as the great troubadour of revisionism of our era: Roy Foster.

But, this becomes problematic when taken too far.  When we become too focussed on seeing past the binaries, to see all the ways Catholics and Protestants got along in Belfast, in Derry, and across the North, we run a new risk.  And that is to trivialise the Troubles.  The Troubles was, ultimately, a civil war between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. For the most part, we have long used “nationalist” and “Catholic” and “Protestant” and “unionist” as synonyms. And it is good to see across the lines, to see the attempts at peace-building and community-making in the midst of the terror and devastation of the Troubles. But if we push this impulse too far, then we are blind to the Troubles (or any other conflict that relies on binaries). There is a reason that those two sets of words were/are seen synonymously. It remains that over 3,500 people are dead, countless lives were torn asunder, and the two cities of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry, still bear the scars of the Troubles on their landscapes.

We, as historians can try all we like to see past the binaries here, but the simple fact remains that this binary was a pretty fundamental one, it resonated with people, it caused them to fight, sometimes to the death, for what they believed in. It caused them to engage in terrorism. It tore families and communities apart. We cannot lose sight of that.

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§ 3 Responses to On Irish Historiography, Revisionism, and the Troubles

  • Geneviève says:

    Interesting read! Do you think this is an inevitable step in History writing that will lead us to a better understanding? Or simply one direction that never should have been made?

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Thanks. It’s hard to say, really, especially with Irish historiography, which is such contentious ground. Revisionism was necessary there, and I suppose this need to break down binaries reflects larger trends in historiography across the globe. Ultimately, I think the solution is to accept that there are binaries for a reason and that they can and were broken down at times, a sort of “both/and” situation, if that makes any sense.

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